Ahmad Chehade, PharmD. Candidate
“Can I take this medication even though it’s expired?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions by patients to their healthcare providers. It can be quite frustrating to find out that something’s expired just when you need it the most, or to see medication go to waste after spending your hard-earned money. But do medications “go bad” in the same way that food does? Is it safe to take medications past their expiry date?
The truth is, manufacturing companies are required by regulating bodies to put expiration dates on all their products, as part of the process of determining the efficacy and safety of drugs. With the exception of certain medications called tetracyclines, there are currently no reports of harm associated with ingestion, injection, or topical application of expired medications.1 Moreover, expiry dates for medications aren’t the same as the ones for food. In fact, they have nothing to do with “going bad”, but instead refer to a medication’s stability.
Stability, what does it mean?
Have you ever seen the label on your prescription saying “keep in a dark, cool, and dry place,” and wondered what that was for? All medications naturally break down with time, just not all at once; therefore, the more time that goes by, the less the drug will work. Medications that are less stable will lose their effectiveness faster, while medications that are more stable will remain effective for longer periods of time. The stability of a product depends on the drug itself, its preservatives (if any), and the conditions it was placed in – meaning exposure to harsh environments can speed up the breakdown process. Specifically, it’s been found that heat and humidity can contribute to the degradation of many drugs.1
When a medication is packaged and sealed in its original container and given an expiration date, this date indicates the time at which the medication will no longer be stable under these conditions.1 However, once a bottle is opened, this expiry date doesn’t mean much, because the conditions in which the medication was manufactured are no longer the same. Once opened, medications become exposed to different temperatures, light, and air which all affect how fast they break down.
When a medication is expired, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gone bad or become unsafe, but it does mean the medication may not be 100% effective. That being said, while it may not be harmful to take expired medications, it’s important to consider why you are taking them. For example, if you were treating an infection, you wouldn’t want to risk taking an expired antibiotic which may not work. This can not only lead to an untreated infection but more serious problems like antibiotic resistance. Also, drugs meant for epilepsy, heart disease, and psychological disorders are all examples where you’re safer off not taking risks.
At this point, there’s no good data that can determine a medication’s “true” expiry date, because after a bottle is opened, there are so many environmental issues to consider. In some cases, medication bottles which have never been opened may retain over >90% of their potency even after five years from the expiration date.1 On the other hand, some medications you’ve taken before may have already been near-expired without you knowing it!
As always, consult a healthcare practitioner if you want advice on medications you’re taking or anything in your medicine cabinet at home. And of course, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, or at email@example.com with any questions or concerns.
- Drugs Past Their Expiration Date. JAMA. 2016;315(5):510–511. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.0048